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Photos by Nic Pouliot
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SMOKEY ROBINSON and MARTHA REEVES AND THE VANDELLAS as part of the TORONTO JAZZ FESTIVAL at Nathan Phillips Square, Friday, June 21. Rating: NN
There were parts of it that were immensely enjoyable. Smokey Robinson is, after all, responsible for some of the greatest songs of the 60s and 70s, including Temptations hits The Way You Do The Things You Do and Get Ready, which he performed with energetic zeal. As he told the tented Nathan Phillips Square audience, he's been at Motown from the start - 50 years ago. His voice is as honeyed as ever, and the crowd was undeniably smitten. So it was puzzling that he'd pick so many slow, sleepy songs that stretched out interminably.
Openers and fellow Motown stars Martha Reeves and the Vandellas had worked so hard to overcome a stiff backing band and dragged-out between-song banter to finish their set with the joyous energy of Love (Makes Me Do Foolish Things) and Jimmy Mack. By then, the audience - even those that were victim to the paid tented area's awkward sightlines - was ready to party. But every time Smokey gained momentum with a Robinson classic, he'd kill it with an elevator tune or an awkward story.
The sparkly outfits, uncomfortable gyration and cheesy bedroom saxophone didn't seem to fit at a major downtown festival. And, in addition to a four-piece band and three backup singers, two ridiculously clad women would emerge every few songs, wearing a series of befuddling outfits (the kind you'd find at a cheap Halloween costume outlet - 70s hippie garb, fur-buttoned trench coats) and dance provocatively. He seductively doffed his jacket into the hands of a young backup singer, and his dancing in general was overtly sexual. The audience was genuinely adoring. I couldn't stop cringing.
He saved Cruising for the finale, which began wonderfully, but quickly deteriorated into a painful 20 minutes of audience participation.